We realise that it’s ironic to write a blog post about punctual and full attendance as we are publishing this post later than usual this week. But yesterday (when we should have been uploading this post) we went to a restored house that used to be a Victorian girls’ boarding school. On display in the schoolroom were Queen Victoria medals that some of the pupils had been awarded for full and punctual attendance. They were introduced in 1887 and achieving one of these was no mean feat; the V&A talk about how there was little treatment for childhood illnesses (so missing school because of sickness was common) and how girls in particular were often kept at home if their mother was working, giving birth or unwell so that they could look after their younger siblings. The scheme was scrapped in 1916 because resources had to be redistributed due to World War One. But we know it’s still common in schools to reward 100% attendance – should it be?
Many schools in the UK give prizes and certificates for those pupils who achieve 100% attendance. As Ofsted use attendance data as part of their judgement when doing inspections, it’s become necessary for schools to take measures to ensure attendance is as high as possible. But is it right to award prizes for something over which children have no control? Back in 2017, one mother made the headlines after refusing to permit her son to receive his attendance prize (a trip to a soft play centre) because of her belief that they reward luck and “exclude the weakest”. Similarly one teacher has argued that attendance awards send the message that “work comes before all else, even our own health and wellbeing”. And a recent study from Harvard University found awarding prizes did not improve attendance. In fact when “surprise” awards were given at the end of a school year, these had the impact of reducing subsequent attendance and acting as demotivators. This is suggested to be because the awards signal that “award recipients have performed the behavior (attended school) more than their peers have. And second, that recipients have performed the behavior to a greater degree than was organizationally expected” (2018, p.2).
And if we shouldn’t reward high attendance, should we punish low attendance instead? Schools and councils have the power to take legal action to reprimand parents of low-attenders by issuing fines, instructing a supervisor to assist with getting children to school, sending parents to parenting classes and even prosecuting them. Although these measures are not without controversy; in 2016 one parent successfully won a High Court ruling to overturn his prosecution for taking his daughter on a term-time holiday, after arguing that missing seven days of school did not amount to “failing to attend regularly”. And it’s easy to see why parents could be tempted to take their children on holiday during term time when it can cost a family of four almost £3000 more to travel in August than in June.
So, should we do away with school attendance prizes and prosecuting for term-time holidays? Or do you think we should return to medals for those pupils who don’t miss any lessons? We’d like to know what you think.